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Friday, May 3, 2013

Havana–city of contrasts

Wow – what can one say about Havana?  Those who have visited will know what I mean and those who haven’t – get there soon before it gets spoilt.  We were surprised at the numbers of tourists figuring that any city without Americans would be quiet.  Wrong.  Europeans and Canadians flock here and with tourism the country’s biggest earner it’s only going to get worse.

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Havana is one of the most vibrant, interesting, colourful cities we’ve been to.  Distinctly trapped in a 1950s time warp, its wide roads are clogged with thousands of classic American cars such as Fords, Buicks, Dodges and Chevs as well as horses and carts and bicycles.

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Those cars in immaculate condition sit outside the five star hotels waiting to take tourists for city tours at eye watering prices. The beat up models that are full of rust, have no door handles and long gone suspension so the taxis run from Havana out to the  suburbs.  For less than a dollar you can go anywhere – albeit not in such grand style as you would in a two door candy coloured Chevy convertible with white upholstery and matching white wall tyres.

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Havana is a city of contrasts.  It’s certainly not had the airbrushing many other UNESCO cities such as Cartagena have had – it’s still very raw in parts – almost too raw.  Life is lived in or on the streets and it’s a very busy and happening place.

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The areas where money is being poured in are lovely – beautifully renovated buildings, cobbled streets, trees in pots and street performers everywhere.  Slick operators prowl these areas waiting to pounce on gullible tourists…smartly dressed men smoking cigars or playing trumpet encourage you to take their photograph.  We got hit up for money here way more than in any other Cuban town.

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It doesn’t take much to get away from the hustle and bustle and into the backstreets where life is far grittier.  Many buildings in these areas are crumbling and decrepit, the only form of transport is on foot or bicycle and people eke out a living selling a few mangos, tomatoes or sunflowers. 

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Dirt cheap peso stores are everywhere and it’s fun to sit with the locals and eat what they’re eating (usually greasy, fattening and delicious).  Sometimes you have to stand in the street and eat your peso pizza or peso ice cream – but that’s part of the fun.

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However, come sun downer time we retreated to the terrace of the elegant Hotel Ingleterre for a comfortable seat with a view and a serious mojito – one of the best we’ve had.  But it was hard to enjoy as we were besieged by beggars wanting soap, money and pens.  Given we were in a communist country that allegedly provides for its people we were surprised.   

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Havana is huge and it’s impossible to see it in a day.  Our first day we spent just orientating ourselves.  Armed with a map we walked and walked and walked with the spectacular Capatolia building as a landmark, stopping to revive ourselves with coffee, an ice cream, a cold beer or something more substantial from time to time. 

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Our second day was a more serious exploration and we followed a recommended walking route through the old city that took in the main museums, monuments, churches, forts, buildings and squares.

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We got off the beaten track, had lots of intriguing conversations with locals – some of whom just wanted to practise their English, others simply wanted to welcome us to Havana while others, of course, wanted something.  But they were all very friendly.

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What we loved the most – apart from the amazing architecture and wonderful old buildings – were the colourful people.  Everywhere we turned there was another face to be snapped.  And such friendly people – never once were we admonished for taking a photo. 

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We ended up having three full days in Havana and still didn’t see everything.  We did enjoy visiting the Museum of the Revolution and seeing the Granma, the boat Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and friends sailed from Mexico to Cuba before the revolution.  The leafy streets and bustling markets of the Vedado area were also enjoyable.  Then there were the many art galleries, rum and cigar factories, bars and cafes and a hectic night-time scene with live music everywhere.

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Exploring Havana was exhausting and we often took refuge in the air conditioned comfort of one of the five star hotels.  There’s nothing like a bit of luxury.  Another great place to escape the hustle was the Havana Club rum factory.  In the shady courtyard we sipped refreshing guaravanas (rum, sugar cane juice and orange juice) and listened to Cuban music.

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It was wonderful to return to Bandit in Hemingway Marina and enjoy refreshing dips in the pool – we felt we’d collected a fair bit of dust and dirt in Havana.   With a good weather window we left Havana in late April headed for the east coast of the States with wonderful memories of our fantastic six weeks in Cuba. 

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